In Syria fight, Iran said to re­cruit from 2 na­tions

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - KATHY GAN­NON In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Amir Shah, Mu­nir Ahmed, Riaz Khan and Nasser Karimi of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

ISLAMABAD — Thou­sands of Shi­ite Mus­lims from Afghanistan and Pak­istan are be­ing re­cruited by Iran to join the fight in Syria, lured by prom­ises in­clud­ing hous­ing and a monthly salary of up to $600, coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials and an­a­lysts say.

Th­ese fight­ers, who have re­ceived pub­lic praise from Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, even have their own bri­gades, but coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials in Afghanistan and Pak­istan worry about the may­hem they might cause when they re­turn home to coun­tries al­ready wrestling with a mil­i­tant prob­lem.

Amir Toumaj, Iran re­search an­a­lyst at the U.S.based Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, said the num­ber of fight­ers is fluid but that as many as 6,000 Afghans are fight­ing for Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, while the num­ber of Pak­ista­nis, who fight un­der the ban­ner of the Zain­abay­oun Bri­gade, is in the hun­dreds.

Iran has been aid­ing As­sad’s forces in the Syr­ian civil war.

In Afghanistan, steppedup at­tacks on mi­nor­ity Shi­ites — claimed by the up­start Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate known as Is­lamic State in the Kho­rasan Prov­ince — could be pay­back against Afghan Shi­ites in Syria fight­ing un­der the ban­ner of the Fa­ti­may­oun Bri­gade, Toumaj said.

Kho­rasan is an an­cient name for an area that in­cluded parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Central Asia.

“People were ex­pect­ing blow­back,” Toumaj said. The Is­lamic State, a Sunni mil­i­tant group, “it­self has its own strat­egy to in­flame sec­tar­ian strife.”

Shi­ites in Afghanistan are fright­ened. Wor­ship­pers at a re­cent Fri­day prayer ser­vice said Shi­ite mosques in the Afghan cap­i­tal, in­clud­ing the largest, Ibrahim Khalil mosque, were barely a third full.

Pre­vi­ously on Fri­days — the Is­lamic holy day — the faith­ful were so many that the over­flow of­ten spilled out on the street out­side the Kabul mosque.

Mo­hammed Naim, a Shi­ite restau­rant owner in Kabul, is­sued a plea to Iran.

“Please don’t send the poor Afghan Shia refugees to fight in Syria be­cause then Daesh at­tacks di­rectly on Shias,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for the Is­lamic State.

Pak­istan has also been tar­geted by the Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ate.

The mil­i­tant group has claimed sev­eral at­tacks on the coun­try’s Shi­ite com­mu­nity, send­ing sui­cide bombers to shrines and killing scores of devo­tees.

In Pak­istan, sec­tar­ian ri­val­ries rou­tinely break into vi­o­lence.

The usual tar­gets are the coun­try’s mi­nor­ity Shi­ites, mak­ing them will­ing re­cruits, Toumaj said.

The most fer­tile re­cruit­ment ground for Iran has been Parachi­nar, the re­gional cap­i­tal of the Khur­ram tribal re­gion that bor­ders Afghanistan, he said.

There, Shi­ites have been tar­geted by sui­cide bomb­ings car­ried out by Sunni mil­i­tants, who con­sider Shi­ites to be heretics.

In June, two sui­cide bomb­ings in rapid suc­ces­sion killed nearly 70 people. The at­tacks prompted na­tion­wide demon­stra­tions.

A Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he is not au­tho­rized to speak to the media, said re­cruits also hail from the north­ern Gil­git-Baltistan ter­ri­tory.

Re­cruiters are of­ten Shi­ite cler­ics with ties to Iran, some of whom have stud­ied in sem­i­nar­ies in Iran’s Qom and Mash­had cities, said a sec­ond Pak­istani of­fi­cial, who also spoke on con­di­tion that he not be iden­ti­fied be­cause he still op­er­ates in the area and ex­pos­ing his iden­tity would en­dan­ger him.

Yet fight­ers sign up for many rea­sons.

Some are in­spired to go to Syria to pro­tect sites con­sid­ered holy to Shi­ite Mus­lims, like the shrine hon­or­ing Sayyida Zainab, the grand­daugh­ter of Is­lam’s Prophet Muham­mad.

Lo­cated in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal of Da­m­as­cus, the shrine was at­tacked by Syr­ian rebels in 2013.

Oth­ers sign up for the monthly stipend and the prom­ise of a house. For those re­cruited from among the more than 1 mil­lion Afghan refugees still liv­ing in Iran, it’s of­ten the prom­ise of per­ma­nent res­i­dence in Iran.

For Shi­ites in Pak­istan’s Parachi­nar, it is anger at the re­lent­less at­tacks by Sunni mil­i­tants that drives them to sign up for bat­tle in Syria, Toumaj said.

Mir Hus­sain Naseri, a mem­ber of Afghanistan’s Shi­ite cler­ics’ coun­cil, said Shi­ites are ob­li­gated to pro­tect re­li­gious shrines in both Iraq and Syria, coun­tries where the Is­lamic State holds ter­ri­tory.

“Afghans are go­ing to Syria to pro­tect the holy places against at­tacks by Daesh,” he said. “Daesh is the en­emy of Shias.”

Eh­san Ghani, chief of Pak­istan’s Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Au­thor­ity, said his or­ga­ni­za­tion is sift­ing through hun­dreds of doc­u­ments, in­clud­ing im­mi­gra­tion files, to get an es­ti­mate on the num­ber of Pak­ista­nis fight­ing on both sides of the many Mid­dle East con­flicts, in­clud­ing Syria.

But it’s a cum­ber­some process.

“We know people are go­ing from here to fight, but we have to know who is go­ing as a pil­grim [to shrines in Syria and Iraq] and who is go­ing to join the fight,” he said.

Pak­istan’s many in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, as well as the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, are in­volved in the search, said Ghani, adding that Pak­istan wants an es­ti­mate in or­der to de­vise a pol­icy to deal with fight­ers when they re­turn home.

Un­til now, Pak­istan has de­nied the pres­ence of the Is­lamic State in that coun­try.

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